Nomadic Dreams and Business Realities

In a typical Fortune 500 company, on any given day, only half percent of the workforce reports to a traditional office. The rest work from home, at client sites, or are constantly in transit. Studies of economic activities between world cities like New York, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt, or Singapore over the last decade show increased inter-organizational activity and networking.

Being nomadic is today’s condition, but it is not at all that glamorous. Neither is it all that fun. I remember sitting in my room in the basement in a small suburb of an even smaller town in central Norway thinking: “wouldn’t it be great to travel and work globally. I would see so many people and places and still get paid for it”. Well, now I do, and it is not entirely without its problems. For instance, I am not a good sleeper, and being without sleep when travelling is a significant deterrent to long journeys. Secondly, I have a horribly inflexible biological clock, so any time difference takes me weeks to make up for. This pretty much rules out a seamless transition between the US and Europe, just to give an example of a trajectory I often follow. Thirdly, I have a family. I also happen to like my wife and kids, so I see no particular benefit in being away from them (apart from getting more work done).

The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has described the last decades as an evolution into a “network society.” This society has ever more computerized work processes. Employees travel more. Electronic flows enable the exchange of information through and between large cities. Information goes through the Internet, but also through corporate Intranets and other elite information networks. These enable access, communication, and action across great geographical distance.

If nomads float on the top, they lose influence. Their managers, meanwhile, struggle to hold teams, projects and companies together. Leadership From Below, Chapter 1: Finding Your Place of Impact, page 11.

The flipside of a nomadic workforce is a lack of influence over matters that require sustained interaction in one location. If nomads float on the top, they lose that influence. Meanwhile, their managers struggle to hold together teams, projects, and companies.
How should you manage your mobility to be most efficient as a leader? You need to be where it is strategically most important to be. If you cannot be there for some legitimate reason, you need to compensate, maybe with more frequent emails, phonecalls or action through proxies like colleagues, friends, gifts, or other indirect means of influence. Whatever you do, don’t assume that power resides on the surface. You are not powerful because you have frequent flier status on ten different carriers – you are powerful because you get your company’s view across. Leadership is almost always more forcefully expressed in the more mundane actions like remembering your contacts by sending them a Facebook message when their birthday comes up, or doublechecking to confirm that a speaker is indeed coming to the right address. The contemporary leader has in many ways become his or her own secretary. We cannot affort office support anymore. Moreover, we are not in the office, so there is nobody there to support. The mundane tasks, however, persist, and may lead to an unprecedented new level of boredom. Or, you may choose to embrace it.

To every bottom-up leader out there, whether you are a CEO or a clerk. Live a little. Have some wine by the computer! Those big board decisions will come, too. But your moment responding to an e-vite about the five-year birthday of a colleague’s son might be your smartest business move this year. Or, it may just make someone else happy. Both would be worth it.

Five things My Daughter Taught me about Leadership

I have a two year old daughter to whom I dedicated Leadership From Below. I believe she embodies the principle. She has absolutely no formal power, she is clearly a small thing who has a lot to learn about life. One would think she lacked the size, experience, or economic resources to pursue great things. On the other hand, I have discovered that she very often gets her way. Why is that?

1. Be persistent.

When I dedicated my book to her, I admit I was thinking of her qualities like persistence, dedication, stubbornness, and willingness to go to extreme measures. All of these are important to bottom-up leadership where you do not have a lot of formal power, such as in team work, when working with competitors, or in any kind of partnership. Management books and managers had better take notice soon – and knowledge workers are using these principles daily. So, let’s turn to my daughter, who is two. For instance, if she has indicated she wants something, say a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she will pursue her idea until it gets there, even if there are very good reasons why she would not get one, such as she just ate, we are in the car without easy access to food, or we are making something else for that meal. Resisting leadership from below occurs at great peril, if you are dealing with passionate believers. They will simply not give up. Persistence is largely a good quality in life. You can accomplish more if you are prepared to work at it, even if the environment initially is hostile to your ideas or you do not see immediate results. However, not everyone is persistent, and not all persistence does in the end lead to success. So, there must be more to her shrewdness. Maybe persistence only pays off if you…

2. Build an unbreakable bond.

Having reflected on this a bit more, I found something even more important: the leverage she has through the unbreakable bond she has created between herself and her significant others, indeed everyone who spends time with her. For example, she is her uncle’s favorite, he refuses to discipline her and leaves the room when she is sad, to avoid being associated with causing any pain. He explores the good side of the little princess and lets her parents handle the rest. What that bond does is that it creates an unbreakable allegiance to her, her actions, opinions, viewpoints, and desires, even the ones that are clearly counterproductive, cause things to break, or are really painful. This week, for instance, my daughter decided to put our telephone in the toilet. We scolded her a bit for it, but it is now just a good story. Also, for some inexplicable reason, after we dried out it, it is now working again. Does her bond extend to objects, too?

3. Make your way the natural way.

My point is this, leadership is about building relationships, only then can you have influence. Trying to push your will through without strong relationships with people around you will only cause resentment. However, if you have a unique position built on repeated interactions where you have shown you care about others, where you show that despite your strong will you also give back, your commands will be carried out. The even stranger thing is, it will not feel like a command. In fact, it might feel like the natural thing to do.

4. Push your point, but move on.

Even more impressively, if I have been coerced to accept one of her whims, even if making her happy has been at the expense of my good night’s sleep, sending the report my boss is waiting for, or has taken every minute of my valuable talking time with my wife that evening, it is soon forgotten. By both of us. Life goes on, there are new challenges ahead. This happens even if there have been seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to peace, maybe I slept for only an hour combined throughout the whole night. She will simply smile at me and say something like: “Daddy read?” How does she do it?

5. See yourself as an equal

My daughter, who only just turned two, had an almost innate feeling of the peer-to-peer principle which is so immensely important in contemporary society, and is every day exploited by practitioners of leadership from below. She simply sees herself as an equal. She has no fear. She will likely approach royalty, CEOs, tax men, bosses, or teachers she will meet on her way in the same fashion she approaches her parents: as an opportunity to explore life, present her position, and share her world view with others. May that attitude become more prevalent in business, too. Having an effective leadership style is not about age, experience, or formal power. It is largely an attidude and a set of skills you hone through practice. I say, look at the two-year olds around you, and learn.

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